Page Updated: June 15, 2019

Asbestos Disposal and Potential for Recycling

Asbestos has been used for hundreds of years in many applications, from buildings, equipment, vehicles, and more. It has a lot of properties that made it ideal for industries, such as its ease of use, heat and fire resistance, and affordability. The downside to asbestos is that exposure to it can make you extremely sick.

Disposing of asbestos correctly and minimizing exposure while being transported to the correct facility is crucial. Current regulations describe how asbestos should be thrown away, but new technologies may actually lead to safer recycling of the dangerous substance.

The Dangers of Asbestos and Where It’s Found

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring set of minerals mined from the earth, but it’s dangerous and has been linked to life-threatening illnesses such as malignant mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. Yet, since asbestos resists fire, heat, electricity, and many chemicals, it’s been used in many applications over the years. In fact, there’s record of its use dating back to ancient times.

In modern times, asbestos was used extensively as insulation in homes and on ships, specifically the materials used to make vinyl flooring, roofing tiles, siding, paint, and patching compound. It was also used in heat-resistant fabrics, around steam pipes, and in car brakes and clutches. These are some of the places you may still find asbestos today, especially in older buildings and homes.

Asbestos isn’t currently banned in the U.S., despite popular belief. However, it has to be used in the most safe way. Manufacturers can only use a fraction of the amount of asbestos that was previously used before strict regulations were enforced.

Asbestos and the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) to help people avoid illnesses and fatalities caused by toxic air pollutants, including asbestos. The standards include guidelines for demolishing buildings with asbestos and disposing of the asbestos correctly.

According to the EPA, any building (unless the area is less than 260 linear feet) undergoing demolition and renovation must first be inspected to determine how much asbestos it contains. If a certain threshold amount of asbestos is found during an inspection, it must be reported to the appropriate agency, typically a state agency.

For example, in Florida, asbestos must be reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Keep in mind that most states require that you hire a professional, licensed asbestos inspector to detect asbestos in homes and buildings. 

Asbestos abatement must also be carried about by trained, licensed professionals. The guidelines for removing asbestos and preparing it for disposal include:

  • Wetting all materials that contain the mineral and sealing them in leak tight containers, clearly labeled, or with thick bags (at least 6 mil and double bagged), sealed tight with duct tape for rigid, non-friable asbestos. 
  • Ensuring there are warning signs, clearly labeled, around the work area, that alerts the public about asbestos.
  • Wearing protective gear at all times when preparing asbestos for disposal, include a HEPA respirator.

Asbestos Can Only Be Disposed of in Certain Landfills

Once asbestos or asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are wetted and secured in the proper containers, the materials must be transported to an appropriate disposal facility. Not all landfills accept asbestos. The EPA has landfills in each state specifically used for asbestos disposal.

For instance, in Massachusetts, the only available place to dispose of asbestos is the Waste Management Fitchburg/Westminster Sanitary Landfill. Substantial fines are enforced for anyone disposing of the dangerous substance in inappropriate places.

The contained waste material must be transported in trucks that are labeled as containing asbestos. Landfills that handle asbestos are required to have a designated area for disposing of the material. This area should be clearly delineated from the rest of the landfill.

The landfill is also responsible for ensuring there are no emissions coming from the asbestos disposal area and that the leak-tight containers used to contain the material retain their integrity over time. The asbestos area of a landfill cannot be compacted for this reason, but it does have to be covered.

Can Asbestos Be Recycled?

The disposal process for asbestos is generally considered safe if all rules are followed, but it isn’t perfect. It requires a lot of landfill space to safely store all of the hazardous materials.

Researchers have been working on methods for recycling asbestos and ACMs that could potentially be put to use in the future. For example, a metal pipe that has asbestos adhered to it does not need to be thrown out entirely. A chemical solution can be used to remove the adhered fibers so that the metal can be reused.

Researchers also experimented with a combination of mechanical and chemical procedures to treat ACMs in order to remove the asbestos safely, contain it, and reuse the non-asbestos material. Another procedure being tested involves actually changing the fibrous structure of the mineral so that it becomes inert, and cannot enter the air where people may inhale it.

More research should be forthcoming into ways in which asbestos can be abated and disposed of, while recycling the materials that the mineral became intertwined with. Being able to recycle asbestos will save landfill space, time, and money, while keeping people safe.